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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act includes $12 billion for Indian Country, however, making the most of the funding opportunities presents challenges for some Native organizations.

The act is a “once-in-a-generation” investment, Raina Thiele, Dena'ina Athabascan and Yup’ik, said recently. She’s senior advisor for Alaska Affairs and Strategic Priorities for the Secretary of Interior and was one of several people who spoke on a panel at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention Dec. 14.

The law allocates funding for infrastructure like roads, bridges, airports, railroads, access to clean drinking water, high speed internet, and other projects that will “tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice and invest in communities that have too often been left behind,” Thiele said. The funding will be distributed via dozens of federal agencies.

(Related: $12 billion. 1,560 projects. And a green light for tribes)

At an intertribal gathering last month, participants said agencies should simply distribute funding without requiring onerous applications. They also asked for better coordination among federal agencies, and an easing of environmental requirements in the permitting process.

Six months ago the Alaska Federation of Natives and state of Alaska created a Navigators project to guide Alaska Native organizations through the ins and outs of agency funding distribution.

April Ferguson, Yup’ik, is a former vice president for the Alaska Native regional Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and a former federation board member who has been assisting with the Navigators project.

The range and amounts of funding are a “high quality problem” for Alaska Native organizations, she said, speaking at the federation’s December panel. “There are so many opportunities right now that they just can't keep track of it all. I mean, we (in the Navigators project) have a hard time and we have four or five people doing it.”

Ferguson praised the work of Native liaisons at federal agencies, and encouraged agencies to write grant applications and directions in “plain English.”

However, agencies also need to understand the reality of life in rural Alaska, Ferguson said.

She said Native administrators who lack easy access to the internet are not able to learn the technology. “They're also bilingual. And probably a lot of them in positions of responsibility are older,” Ferguson said. “So they're not high tech and navigating the portals where you have to do and the just before you can start is really challenging in addition to all of these multiple deadlines and the reporting and the compliance.”

She described having to get a teenager to take photos of a grant application to submit via smartphone because the internet was down or too slow… and the internet is sometimes down for months at a time. She encouraged agencies to leave the door open for other ways to access information and submit materials.

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Greg Razo, Yup’ik, is also assisting with the Navigator project. He is a former vice president for the Alaska Native regional corporation CIRI, and former federation board member. “We are seeing a flood of opportunities that are very difficult for the tribes and other Native organizations to be able to respond to, especially with tight deadlines coming one right after the other,” Razo said during the panel discussion.

Razo said one of the first steps should be to help expand Native organizations’ administrative functionality.

“Before we can even hope to be successful with those opportunities, we have to build capacity in our tribal nations and that takes funding to do that as well. And that's actually infrastructure. It's human infrastructure that will allow them to try to be able to participate in a meaningful way by writing compelling grants that tell their stories.”

Capacity building, Razo said, includes broadband capacity, training, and educational opportunities with a focus on some of the money that’s becoming available.

He said following the rules and regulations for project management and funding is another concern.

“I'm dreadfully worried about compliance with regard to all of these federal programs. Federal programs always come with strings attached and the need for reporting and information back to the government,” Razo said.

With tribes lacking attorneys “to help them run the gauntlet of federal regulations that could apply to the money that they're receiving and sending out, it's a situation that is ripe for mistakes and for error,” Razo said.

He said without money for capacity building or compliance, he worries. “What's going to happen as we begin to do these compliance checks and find out that because of a lack of information or a lack of access to be able to gain information through broadband, that the tribe simply misspent the money and then what the consequence can be for that?”

Panelist Colonel Damon Delarosa, commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska District, encouraged communities to speak in a unified voice. He said it helps if tribes, Native corporations, and communities are all “on the same sheet of music in wanting something to go forward.”

He said he has to justify grants and spending on a national level. “And if we have dissension among the ranks, if you will, it makes it difficult for us to make that happen.”

Panelists emphasized the importance of Natives reaching out to granting agencies. Lisa Sutherland, the Alaska Federation of Natives’ lead federal navigator, said agencies have just been handed “big pots of money,” and it’s important to let them know your needs.

“They can't solve problems that you don't tell 'em about,” Sutherland said. “I can think of many, many times when we'd go out to communities and they'd tell us something. And we're like, ‘we didn't know that. Why didn't you tell us?’ So I would just encourage participants to really speak up.”

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This article has updated titles for April Ferguson and Greg Razo.

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